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Best hybrid SUV for fuel efficiency

When shoppers see the word hybrid attached to a vehicle, the common assumption is that exceptional fuel efficiency is guaranteed. This isn't necessarily the case when it comes to many hybrid SUVs, but the 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid does offer solid gas mileage. The Escape Hybrid gets 31 mpg city/34 mpg highway/32 mpg combined according to EPA estimates, making it the most fuel-efficient SUV on the market now.

Critics say the Ford Escape Hybrid isn't just efficient; performance is commendable, technology options such as the voice-operated Sync infotainment system earn praise, and cargo space up to 66 cubic feet (with the back seat folded) adds to the Escape's overall practicality.

Despite its strong points, the Escape Hybrid isn't without weak spots. Stops from highway velocity can take more than 150 feet, according to some braking tests. Other reviewers note that the added weight from the hybrid drivetrain components can be noticed from behind the wheel, where handling isn't as nimble as in the conventional gas-engined Escape. Finally, while the Escape gets good front- and side-crash test results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), it gets the lower rating of Marginal for roof-crush strength.

If you still want something efficient, but more accommodating for a family, the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, covered in the next section, is a good alternative.

Non-SUV alternatives that offer similar amounts of cargo capacity and even better fuel efficiency are also available. For instance, the diesel-powered 2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagen and the gas-powered 2011 Honda Fit (Base MSRP: $15,570) offer either similar (or better) cargo space and fuel economy to the Escape Hybrid, while costing thousands of dollars less.

See our full report on the 2011 Ford Escape Hybrid (Base MSRP: $30,570 to $34,830) for full details on the model and links to many expert sources.

Best family-sized hybrid SUV

Reviews indicate that no hybrid SUV is a more capable family hauler than the seven-passenger 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The Highlander Hybrid gets an estimated 28 mpg combined according to the EPA, is an IIHS Top Safety Pick and embodies Toyota's reputation for reliability. The Highlander Hybrid receives some minor cosmetic changes for the 2011 model year, along with 10 more horsepower from a slightly larger engine, but it is, for the most part, unchanged from the 2010 model. 

Reviewers say that the Highlander Hybrid delivers good power thanks to its gas-electric drivetrain that for 2011 incorporates a 3.5-liter V6 to produce 280 total system horsepower. Testers say the interior is attractive and full of quality materials and family-friendly features such as reclining second-row seats and an available rear-seat DVD entertainment system. All-wheel drive is standard on the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

The 2011 Highlander Hybrid is named a 2011 Top Safety Pick by the IIHS, which means that it received the highest rating of Good in front, side, rear and roof-strength crash tests.

The Highlander Hybrid's biggest drawback is price, say reviewers. With a starting point of $38,140, the Highlander isn't cheap. Other gasoline powered SUVs that can seat seven, including the nonhybrid Toyota Highlander, are much cheaper. Shoppers considering buying a hybrid to save money on gas should do their homework in advance to see if the purchase will lead to long-term savings; less costly gasoline SUVs may be cheaper to own in the long run.

If your family needs outpace the capacity offered by the Highlander Hybrid, the 2011 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid (Base MSRP: $51,145 to $53,950) is the best alternative, as it's much larger, seats up to eight and is rated to tow more than 6,000 pounds. The Tahoe Hybrid's maximum 108.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity is unrivaled among hybrid SUVs. It's expensive, though, and its EPA-estimated 21 mpg combined, while impressive for a big truck, is substantially lower than the Highlander Hybrid's number. Four-wheel drive is not standard, but it is available.

Best luxury hybrid SUV

Compared with the luxury hybrid competition, the 2011 Lexus RX 450h comes out on top according to reviewers. It's not only the cheapest hybrid SUV from a luxury marque, but it's also the most efficient, with an EPA-estimated 30 mpg combined. This is impressive fuel economy for any SUV, especially considering the lively performance offered by the 295-horsepower, V6, hybrid powertrain. When driving conditions allow, the Lexus RX 450h can be propelled solely by electric power at speeds up to 30 miles per hour, which helps increase fuel economy.

The Lexus RX hybrid lives up to its luxury reputation with a quiet, comfortable ride and an array of useful standard and optional technology.

Like other hybrid SUVs, the Lexus RX 450h's biggest weak spot is its substantial price premium compared to its counterpart with a conventional powertrain. The nonhybrid 2011 Lexus RX 350 starts more than $5,000 cheaper, and other nonhybrid luxury SUVs cost less as well. The RX 450h has room for five passengers, unlike it's less-expensive and nearly-as-efficient cousin, the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which can carry seven. Front-wheel drive is standard on the Lexus hybrid SUV, with all-wheel drive available as an option.

The IIHS gives the RX 450h its Top Safety Pick designation, indicating that it scored the highest possible rating in all crash-test scenarios.

The 2011 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid (Base MSRP: $67,700) is another reviewer favorite, though it's significantly more expensive than the Lexus. The Cayenne Hybrid is also the sportiest hybrid SUV by a wide margin, offering higher performance and better handling in addition to the to-be-expected levels of luxury.

Best hybrid SUV for towing

If you're looking for a hybrid SUV that can also tow a fairly substantial boat or camper, there are a few models up to the task, but they aren't cheap. The new 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid (Base MSRP: $60,565), in addition to being luxurious and attractive, can tow up to 7,700 pounds. This is the most of any hybrid SUV. The Touareg's substantial tow rating is a by-product of its supercharged V6 hybrid powertrain that outputs 380 total system horsepower and 428 pound feet of torque. All that power comes at the price of a low fuel-efficiency rating for a hybrid: 21 mpg combined.

In addition to big power, the VW Touareg Hybrid is outfitted with a premium interior and delivers a solid, comfortable ride that reviewers praise. 

The Touareg Hybrid's lofty price tag is its weak point considering the modest fuel-efficiency gains over the gasoline-powered Touareg. Even within Volkswagen's own stable there is a better option if towing and fuel efficiency are of interest; the diesel-powered 2011 Volkswagen Touareg TDI starts at $47,950 ($12,600 less than the hybrid), has the same tow rating and has higher estimated overall fuel economy at 22 mpg. 

The 2011 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid (Base MSRP: $51,145 to $53,950) can tow up to 6,000 pounds, seats more, costs less and offers similar fuel economy. The Touareg is more luxurious, however, and is generally reviewed more positively than the Tahoe Hybrid, which is an older design. The 2011 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid (Base MSRP: $74,135 to $88,435) and the 2011 GMC Yukon Hybrid (Base MSRP: $51,610 to $61,770) are corporate cousins of the Tahoe Hybrid that share its hybrid drivetrain. The Cadillac Escalade Hybrid is glitzier, offers more luxury options and is much more expensive than the Tahoe.

If towing and keeping costs to a minimum are your goals, traditional nonhybrid SUVs may be a better bet. They are significantly cheaper and don't necessarily get notably worse fuel economy.

Hybrid SUVs and Crossovers Runners Up:

2011 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid Base MSRP: $51,145 to $53,950

2 picks including: FuelEconomy.gov, Edmunds.com…

2011 GMC Yukon Hybrid Base MSRP: $51,610 to $61,770

2 picks including: FuelEconomy.gov, Edmunds.com…

2011 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid Base MSRP: $67,700

1 pick including: FuelEconomy.gov, Car and Driver…

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